Thursday, December 03, 2009

Slowcoach writing

I think I first heard the term "slowcoach," as in "Slowcoach McClellan," in the sonorous tones of David McCullough. At any rate, I think I'm going to adopt it as a cautionary epithet.

Tenured Radical, a blogger I admire, said something in passing this week a couple of weeks ago that made me think:
But I should think that participation in group blogs that serve a field or a discipline should be taken into account as much as book reviews or encyclopedia entries, which everyone lists in endless, boring detail on their vitae as if they took more than a day to write. [and in the comments, in response to someone who challenged that timeframe] Two days. And seriously, why would they ask you for the entry unless you were an expert in that field?
I agree entirely with her main point, but the "one day" or even "two day" timeframe gave me pause. That pause was filled with writing speed envy.

Book reviews--okay, yes, those can be done quickly. Blog posts--nobody drafts those ahead of time, do they? Reports? Piece of cake. I can churn out administrativese at the speed of light.

But encyclopedia articles, even when I know the material, take time (at least at a slowcoach writing speed), which is why I've been turning them down lately. Here's what goes through my head with every single sentence:

1. Is it true? Am I misrepresenting the subject or the text in some way?
2. Is it useful? Is there a better example that I could use?
3. Is it new? Or am I just unconsciously plagiarizing myself or someone else?
4. Does it explain the concept efficiently and (let's hope) gracefully?
5. Does it relate to the sentences around it?
6. Does it hit the right balance of detail to generality?

Most of these questions apply to regular scholarly writing as well, which is why it's possible to wrestle with writing and rewriting a paragraph for an entire four-hour period and still not be entirely satisfied. But it's good to have comparisons of how it could be done if I were more efficient. If I don't speed up, someone's going to remove me from the Peninsular Campaign.


annieem said...

Having written many encyclopedia articles, I greatly appreciate your post: 2 days? Really? Maybe because I venture beyond my area of expertise for those articles (on purpose--to learn something new)it certainly takes me longer than 1-2 days to even gather information, see what other encyclopedia articles have done (so I can do something ELSE), and yes, of course, work on writing issues.

tenthmedieval said...

I do actually draft blog posts ahead of time, though this doesn't actually affect the content much, it just gives me a chance to correct for tone and spleen which is often necessary, the way I write. It's much more about maintaining good readership figures by drip-feeding content than anything compositional though.

On the other hand I've never been asked to write an encyclopedia article and never have that kind of time to work on my scholarly writing, which may be why I have so much unpublished...

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Maybe it depends on what sort of encyclopedia. I haven't done a lot of this; the one I did was for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, and that took almost as much research as for a real article, although at least I didn't have to come up with an argument, just assemble the facts. But it was definitely weeks, not days.

historiann said...

Just don't also become a failed Presidential candidate, and then the butt of jokes in American History survey courses for the next 150 years, slowcoach!

I was just talking about you today in class...

undine said...

Annieem, I'm glad to hear that I'm not alone in taking time with those articles. To be fair, maybe Tenured Radical was talking about a 50-word definition or something instead of 2500-3000 word pieces. "Encyclopedia" covers a lot of ground.

tenthmedieval--ah, but you have real historical content at your site! I can see why you'd draft the posts ahead of time.

Dame Eleanor Hull, I'd think a DLB entry would definitely take as much time as an article, if not more, since what you write is going to be a resource for everyone.

undine said...

Historiann--there goes my career plan!

~profgrrrrl~ said...

My experience with encyclopedias is that writing entries takes it's own fair share of time. They can't be written off the top of one's head and often require delving a bit deeper into a particular area of the literature than one normally goes in the interest of being sufficiently comprehensive.

undine said...

profgrrrrl, that's my experience, too. It has to be more in-depth than you'd expect, which requires more work.